I Want My SUV

"All my life I have searched for a car that feels a certain way ... powerful like a gorilla, yet soft & yielding like a Nerf Ball."

-- Homer Simpson

"You sure you want an Excursion?"

The sales guy at the auto mall eyeballed me as we walked across the sun-baked lot. Apparently he was doing his best to figure out why a 20-something in wrinkled slacks might be interested in the world's largest SUV. "Have you got a lot of kids?"

"Nope."

"Maybe we ought to check out the Expedition first. It's basically the same thing, just a few feet shorter."

"Nah," I said, "I'm pretty sure I'm gonna want the big boy."

I had donned a tie, slicked back the hair and concocted a lame story about an imaginary employer, all in order to get up close and personal with a mechanical giant. Earlier this year, in the face of widespread opposition from environmentalists and consumer advocates, Ford had raised its industrial middle finger and rolled out a monster. The Excursion: a 3.5-ton, V-10-powered, nine-passenger-carrying, 10-mile-to-the-gallon behemoth. Christened the "Exxon Valdez of Vehicles" by the Sierra Club, it was, at birth, the mother of all SUVs.

Naturally, I wanted to get behind the wheel.

"So you work in high tech, huh?"

"Uh, yeah," I replied, quickly trying to remember my own line of crap. "Our company's probably gonna go public this summer, and were getting new company cars. They want me to get a Taurus, but I said no way."

"The Taurus is a good car," said Sales Guy, a row of new Taurus sedans gleaming behind him.

"Yeah, but I want something that'll make a real impression on clients. You know what I mean?"

"Well," he said, pulling open the rear hatch of a $40,000 Excursion Limited, "this will definitely do that."

I was taken aback slightly as I stared into the Excursion's ergonomic abyss. I couldn't help but wonder who it was that needed this much space. Were there actually CEOs who needed to drive eight clients to lunch? Were there Mormon patriarchs out there who were this prolific? Soccer moms this overwhelmed? It seemed almost laughable. Looking into the depths of the thing, I could almost perceive a hint of the Earth's curvature. It was ridiculous, unnecessary and, somehow, strangely appealing.

"Can we take it for a spin?"

Sales Guy perked up and smiled. "I'll go get the keys."

Fad Gone Mad

Amigo. Blazer. Bravada. Cherokee. CR-V. Defender. Denali. Discovery. Durango. Envoy. Escalade. Excursion. Expedition. Explorer. 4Runner. Grand Cherokee. Grand Vitara. Hummer. Jimmy. Land Cruiser. LX470. Montero. Mountaineer. ML430. Navigator. Passport. Pathfinder. QX4. Range Rover. Rav4. Rodeo. RX300. Sequoia. Sidekick. SLX. Sportage. Suburban. Tahoe. Trooper. Vehicross. Wrangler. X5. Xterra. Yukon.

Behold the alphabet of our national obsession.

Whether oddly luxurious or stripped down and serious, these SUVs all share determined, manly nameplates, titles that promise adventurous prestige. The names allude to faraway places, peoples conquered and nature tamed, and not especially to the natural habitat of the American SUV -- the three-car garage, the kids' soccer tournament and the Home Depot parking lot.

Once relegated to our country's back roads, farms and wilderness areas, these bold vehicles are now the leather-trimmed objects of suburban dreams and the focus of environmentalist nightmares. The arguments against them are legion: They suck fuel, almost never go off-road, tend to crush people in smaller cars, roll over easier than a one-legged drunk and pump out enough emissions to kill a chimp.

Yet with SUV and light-truck sales now approaching half of all U.S. car sales, it seems we are just beginning to ride the crest of the SUV explosion. It's almost enough to ask, how did this all happen and why do we want more?

Enter the Minivan

Although not quite as bad as George Orwell had dreamed, 1984 was the year that Dodge introduced the Caravan, the world's first minivan. In fact, Chrysler managed to pull off something of a coup that year: In spite of its abject ugliness, somewhat shoddy workmanship and lack of any trace of automotive sex appeal, the Dodge Caravan sold like crazy. Chrysler had hit paydirt with the minivan for several reasons. First and foremost, the large, affordable American cars of the 1970s were gone for good. Due in part to the fuel embargoes and shortages of the late '70s and partly because of increasingly stringent federal emissions regulation, big V-8-powered cars were no longer a viable option for most folks.

Prodded by regulatory and market forces, the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) were suddenly forced into doing something they had never been good at: building small, reliable and fuel-efficient front-wheel-drive cars. Japanese manufacturers, however, excelled in that arena and began kicking ass, taking names and claiming unprecedented market share. American manufacturers had lost their way and were in dire need of an all-American money-maker.

The minivan was it. Minivans fulfilled America's need for a big, spacious vehicle, and from the manufacturers' standpoint it dodged piles of new federal mandates in terms of both emissions and safety standards. The minivan didn't have to meet federal car standards precisely because it wasn't a car. It was, to use the government classification, a light truck or van (an LTV). With the minivan, an American car company suddenly had a highly profitable product that it would take the Japanese years to match -- a big, boxy people mover.

Yet, while wildly popular, the minivan never really won any hearts. Actually, it soon became something of a bad word:

minivan, min'i van, n. A big, slow and boring vehicle that certain schmucks are forced to buy because the vehicles they actually wanted couldn't fit the kids.

Its utility could not be denied, but it had suburbia written all over it. No one actually dreamed of owning a minivan. So arose the question: How to make big sexy?

The answer, it turned out, was trucks.

Actually, the trucks were already there. The SUV is by no means a recent phenomenon. In fact, the longest continuously manufactured model in the country is, believe it or not, the Chevrolet Suburban. That particular four-door heavy-duty truck was introduced in 1935, and GM's been cranking them out every year since then.

Chevy wasn't alone: Toyota, Ford, Dodge and a few others all had SUV products on the market in the mid-'80s. The trick was to make them luxurious and comfortable enough to appeal to the average consumer. Once these companies began to introduce SUVs that were affordable, rugged and comfortable, consumers fell in love. Main Street USA began to fill up with Pathfinders, Explorers and 4Runners. Suddenly people had the option of buying an affordably big vehicle without the stigma of being minivan owners. They loved it.

The demise of the high-end sports car market also fueled the SUV trend. Demand for the two-seaters, once a highly profitable segment for auto manufacturers, had simply bottomed out in the 1990s. According to the automotive press, manufacturers like Porsche saw nearly a 75 percent decrease in sales between 1985 and 1995. Venerable sports cars like the Mazda RX7 were no longer being imported, and the Nissan 300ZX was taken out of production altogether.

So severe was this trend that GM slashed its Corvette research-and-development expenditures to zero. Adding insult to injury, Autoweek magazine reported in 1998 that GM was also considering retooling the plant that built the Chevy Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird into a facility specifically designed to turn out only SUVs.

SUVs quickly became the new industry cash cow, generating high profits on each unit sold. Ford, the SUV and truck sales leader, reports that since 1991 the SUV market has expanded from approximately 900,000 units on the road to nearly 2.8 million.

Consumers voted with their checkbooks and the industry responded. But now, some are beginning to argue, the trend has gone far enough.

The extent to which the SUV backlash has grown is readily evident at cartalk.com. The Web site of radio funny-men Tom and Ray Magliozza ("Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers") is currently hosting a Big Dumb Car of the Millennium Competition. So far, the Ford Excursion has the lead with 26 percent of the votes, beating out such historic lemons as the Yugo, the Pinto and the AMC Gremlin. Ouch.

Upside Down

After driving the Excursion off the lot, Sales Guy pulled over and allowed me to take the captain's chair. I climbed up and took a moment to examine the interior.

Aside from the fake plastic wood moldings and the general aesthetic overkill, everything seemed to be all right. Distinguishing features included a nice driver's seat (electronically adjustable), a decent sound system and a center console storage area the likes of which the world has never seen. If for some reason you had the need, you could easily store Gary Coleman in there. (Hey, Gary! Hand me that Metallica CD, would ya?)

Finally, I leaned back into the leather bucket seat, checked the side mirror and punched the gas. Powered by Ford's 6.8-liter, 310-horsepower Triton V-10, the vessel had surprising agility. It shot out into traffic without a problem.

"Are you going to be spending much time on the highway?" asked Sales Guy.

"You bet," I replied. "Our home office is out of state, so I'm going to be on the road quite a bit."

"O.K.," he said. "Let's see how she handles on the freeway."

Sales Guy pointed to the on-ramp and I aimed for it. I planned to hit the on-ramp with some speed, head into the curve quickly and try get a feel for the bulk behind the vehicle.

But as soon as the road started to bend, the Excursion responded badly. It lurched and swayed into the corner in a way that made me feel uneasy. As Sales Guy held onto the dash, I was suddenly very aware of the 7,000 pounds I was pushing down the road. I eased off the gas and waited for the on-ramp to straighten out.

"Kind of tricky in the corners, eh?"

"Yeah," said Sales Guy.

Consumer Reports magazine may have fired the first real shot in the war against SUVs when, in 1988, the magazine highlighted the minuscule Suzuki Samurai and its tendency to flip over faster than a gymnast when thrown hard into a turn. Suzuki fought back, but the Samurai was doomed; bumper stickers began appearing on the tiny SUVs that said "This Side Up."

Although Suzuki immediately filed a suit claiming libel, Consumer Reports refused to back off. During a test drive of the 1996 Isuzu Trooper, the magazine reported the same rollover propensity during its short-course emergency avoidance maneuver. The cover of its October 1996 issue screamed "Unsafe" and displayed a dramatic photo of a Trooper flying along on two wheels like in some bad '70s cop show.

Like Suzuki, Isuzu filed libel charges, seeking $242 million in damages. Isuzu contended that Consumers Union, the non-profit company behind Consumer Reports, had purposely driven the Trooper in a manner that would lead to rollover in order to inspire further government regulation of SUVs. Just last month, a federal jury in Los Angeles said "Nice try" and ruled in favor of the magazine.

Proponents continue to argue that SUVs and light trucks cannot be driven like cars due to their high centers of gravity and should not be held to the same standards as cars. And although SUV manufacturers currently post warning labels regarding the dangers of rollover inside the vehicles, it is an issue the federal government is "seriously" looking into.

According to a report issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1998, "30 percent of all passenger car and LTV fatalities were due to rollover crashes. But LTVs are involved in fatal rollover crashes at a much higher rate."

The report goes on to say that in 1996 SUVs were involved in 37 percent of all rollover fatalities that year (followed by pickups, at 24 percent). This demonstrated rollover tendency seems to contrast with the popular perception that SUVs are safe.

"Do you think safety is a concern with this thing?" I asked Sales Guy.

"No way," he said. "Listen, if you hit somebody in this thing, you're gonna go right over them. Plus this thing has got everything, dual airbags, side impact beams, you name it."

Car Killers

Sales Guy was probably right. Driving the Excursion in traffic was like watching a movie or playing a video game -- the threat posed by the vehicles around you just didn't seem real. Due to their size, SUVs do in fact pose unique a danger known to insiders as "crash incompatibility." Because they usually ride high off the ground, SUVs tend to over-shoot passenger car bumpers and hit directly into the passenger compartment of the opposing car. The government has spent some money to prove that this is a bad thing. A recent NHTSA report came to the following conclusion:

"An analysis of crash data revealed that LTV-to-car collisions result in a higher rate of fatalities than car-to-car collisions in both frontal and left-side impacts."

Basically, big vehicles crush little vehicles. Nice work, fellas.

Although SUVs do pose a threat to those of us who drive average-sized vehicles, the situation was actually worse in the 1970s. According to Department of Transportation data, nearly 70 percent of all new cars sold in 1975 weighed in excess of 4,000 pounds. By 1997, only 40 percent of cars and LTVs fit that same category while the percentage of light vehicles on the road remained relatively stable. Although your odds of being crushed like a bug are slightly less today, statistics won't be much consolation to those caught on the wrong end of a red-light-running Excursion.

At least we can rest assured that most people buying gigantic SUVs are graying baby-boomers, not exactly the types looking to burn rubber in front of the Dairy Queen.

Pickup Good, SUV Bad?

While it is easy to hate SUVs, defending that position may not be so simple. The anti-SUV stance is probably best recognized as part fad-bashing ("They're everywhere and they're making me sick!") and part what might be called consumption-bashing ("Those things are too big, use too much resources and create too much exhaust!")

Fad-bashing is the great American tradition of slinging arrows at the objects of mass popularity. Whether it's a movie star, a boy band or a congressman, anything that draws excess media attention will soon become the object of national ridicule and disdain. Now that SUVs suddenly represent every fifth car on the road, it is our patriotic duty as Americans to comment on the trend. The easiest way to get involved in such a populist movement is to stand up and exclaim, "Those things suck!"

Strangely, full-sized pickups don't draw the same criticism.

Consider the facts: There are more full-sized pickups on the road than there are full-sized SUVs. The pickups have identical engines to the SUVs, the same fuel requirements, and a similar impact on the environment. Yet the prevalence and impact of the American pickup, for some reason, has completely bypassed debate. The reason? Pickups are not a fad. They are a utilitarian tradition and therefore, perhaps, beyond reproach.

The consumption-bashing side of the anti-SUV movement, however, is fairly more complex. The argument might be summed up like this: Because we live in a world of limited resources, individuals should not be allowed to consume more than is dictated by that individual's need.

Inarguably, this is a rational point of view. We live in a world wherein a good share the population lives on less than two dollars a day. Americans in particular inhabit a country that consumes an inordinate amount of the world's resources.

This disparity inevitably creates feelings of self-conscious guilt. To then point an accusatory finger at SUV owners, however, is at once to identify the disparity and wholly separate yourself from it. It is an attitude that sidesteps personal responsibility by saying, "I have recognized the problem, and it is you."

A rational onlooker might comment, "Let him without a car cast away the first gas card."

Truth be told, most of even the largest SUVs have fuel economy standards nearly identical to a new Porsche 911 (about 20 mpg), a vehicle capable of carrying only two snotty people and a small suitcase. And according to the most recent government data, the SUV's contribution to our smog problem pales in comparison to role played by commercial diesels and aging, oil-burning passenger vehicles (gross polluters).

Operating completely outside emissions regulation and representing a mere 2 percent of vehicles on the road, commercial trucks and busses create over 30 percent of the toxic, particle-laden smog released into our atmosphere. The EPA also reports that that gross polluters, while comprising only 5 to 15 percent of the vehicles on the road, are responsible for at least half of all auto-related smog.

In an era of improving air quality (national smog levels were at their worst in the mid-1970s), painting the modern SUV as a major source of our environmental woes not only overstates their impact on air quality but, to a larger degree, ignores the big picture.

Ford Feels Your Pain

In a bizarre (not to mention unprecedented) PR move this May, Ford Chairman William Ford responded to the growing SUV backlash by apologizing for the vehicles during an annual stockholders' meeting. While acknowledging that its SUVs emit more pollution than cars and pose broad safety concerns, Ford admitted that his company will continue to build the popular vehicles, including the Excursion, saying that, "If we didn't provide that vehicle, somebody else would. And they wouldn't provide it as responsibly as we do."

In fact, given market forces and the company's history, you could argue that Ford doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. It's a truck company. The Ford F-series pickup has been the top-selling vehicle in the country for 17 years running. Also, Ford has fed the SUV craze more than any other manufacturer. Case in point: The Ford Explorer is currently the most widely owned SUV in the country. And despite sweet-talking the media, Ford already plans to roll out another SUV this summer, a mid-sized model called the Escape.

To be fair, Ford actually has tried to make its SUVs play nice with other vehicles. For example, the new 2000 Excursion comes equipped with a solid-steel bar (called the Blocker Beam tm) attached to the front of its lower frame. Honest to God, it's a device designed to keep your car from sliding under the Excursion when it runs into you and your family. The manufacturer's brochure puts it this way:

"In the event of a frontal collision with a car, the BLOCKER BEAM (tm) is designed to make contact with the frame rails of a car. This helps the car from sliding beneath the higher-riding Excursion."

Now, if that's not corporate responsibility, I don't know what is.

I Want My SUV

SUVs don't make sense for the average driver. Well, no shit. But when did American cars ever make sense? We are the country that gave birth to the three-ton Cadillac, the five-room RV, the 200-mph Viper and now the Excursion -- all hideous vehicles in their own rights, to be sure, but also vehicles that inspire us. And, frankly, we need that.

We wear our vehicles like costumes, using them to project an image that usually has no basis in reality. In a nation of serene suburbs and cubicle jobs, driving an SUV says, "I am not boring. True, I'm going to work now, but later, when you're not looking, I will be whitewater rafting, mountain biking and climbing things. I am sexy and dangerous!"

Americans love SUVs because we are a nation of poseurs. We love to buy things that will never really have any practical application -- things like cowboy hats, pit bulls, Corvettes, assault weapons, etc. That we will never use them for their intended purpose is beside the point. The point is that they fulfill the need to pretend.

Or, as the case may be, to lie...

"So what do you think?" asked Sales Guy, as he carefully parked the Excursion.

"I love it. I'm definitely going to get one."

"Great," he said. "Do you have a business card I could have?"

"You know, I'm fresh out."
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